Pam takes me back along the canal to see Stourbridge’s claim to fame; the Red House Glass Cone. We follow the Roman Road which changes as we go from sandy lane to main road and true to my experience of our land it is along the sandy lane that we have the interesting encounter. We meet a member of the local Butterfly Conservation Society who has been out counting how many species are around today in this locale; it is a positive haven of a habitat with a large buddleia and many wild flowers and brambles full of plump fruit all to be found in the hedgerows. The lady we meet has counted 20 different species, and as we reach the buddleia she points out some six or seven beautiful creatures; several of the gorgeous aptly named peacock, the tortoiseshell, a red admiral, tiny skipper, a beautiful delicate lavender shaded male blue, and a slightly tired white, that I am able to spot.
She tells us the week we are beginning is Big Butterfly Count Week when people are being asked to spend 15 minutes observing one place and counting how many different butterflies they can see and to send their results in to the website (www.bigbutterflycount.org ). Pam is excited by the thought of bringing her grandchildren along the Sandy Lane to do this.
As Pam and I walk on we talk about the Archers’; Pam has been waiting for more episodes that mention Transition since the announcement that Ambridge has become a transition town, but no storyline seems to be developing. We talk about how it probably needs an active transitioner on the story writing team, or maybe some Transition Archer’s listeners to write in with suggestions based on their town’s experiences that could form the basis of a story. So if there are any avid Archer’s fans out there, (and I know there are, for I have met some of you!) please consider sending your ideas in to the story writing team (www.bbc.co.uk.feedback ) and help keep the transition story live.
We follow the canal to the point at which I turned off on my walk in, and start to follow the arm of the Stourbridge canal that has 16 locks. There, between locks 12 and thirteen, is our destination; the Red House Glass Cone; last remaining standing glass works and furnace in Stourbridge. It is a huge conical shaped chimney stretching high into the sky with a rather pleasing bulging midriff all made of curving red brick. This remnant of the glass making industry Stourbridge is famous for is now a visitor centre and within the cavernous walls we are able to explore for free the place where from the 1770s glass was made.
The curator, brimming with loving pride for his beloved chimney, tells me it safe for at least 98 more years; Dudley council have purchased it on a 99 year lease. The museum has been lovingly created maintaining the old workings where possible; the tiny narrow tunnels where the taker-in boy had to go to lead the trays of glassware into the furnace, and many of the conveyor tracks along which the glassware would move in its trays.
A display tells us of the reason canal travel was so appropriate for the glass trade; it could be used come rain or shine, it was a smooth journey so the delicate glassware could not be damaged, and the smooth frictionless water travel meant that the horse power was ten fold what it would have been along roads. Seems like a pretty good set of reason why we should think about re using our canals instead of burning all that oil all up and down the motorways polluting the air we breathe, and rendering huge parts of the countryside inaccessible to any but petrol driven vehicles.
The tradition of glassware in Stourbridge, in spite of the closure of Stewarts Glass, Royal Doulton, and many others simply unable to keep up with the competition of modern manufacturing, continues and we overhear a young female glass artist explaining to a group that when she left school she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do but when she found out about this opportunity she was smitten. The modern glass workers do not use the old furnace, something that would never be allowed in these days of health and safety; I read that they had to send workers as young boys to work here to acclimatise to the stifling conditions for grown men could not stand it.
The Red House museum combine history with a living tradition and have regular exhibitions as well as the demonstrations by the local glass artists. It is in the exhibition room that we meet Carol, the fourth member of Pam’s book club, here with her young and animated granddaughter. We have a great time imagining the world inside the beautiful blue crystal ornament she is taken with and when I joke about the Alice in Wonderland adventure she would have to have to really be able to enter the crystal cave she has imagined we remember the cherry bun exhibit Carol was attracted by and she rushes over to it to recreate the “eat me” scene from the story. It is a delightful cameo I wish I’d been able to capture on film. There, in and amongst the expensive glass work, with the grandmothers anxious about breakages, this little girl reminds us all about the wonders of the child’s world where everything is possible.
Carol and I chat about life in Stourbridge; I am delighted to meet an inhabitant of the town who has never left and to get a perspective from one with that experience. Carol has spent her entire life here and I ask her about changes and she laments how it has changed for the worse. Her husband worked in the glass industry, making furnaces, and had worked at many of the glass cones in the area (a map shows some 16 dotted all about the canal in its heyday). She has some beautiful pieces; sometimes her husband would agree to work in kind if a small glassblower was struggling to get going and Carol would be offered her pick of the beautiful pieces.
She remembers Stourbridge as a lovely small old town and we both feel pleased Pam has taken me to see the old buildings in the centre so I have been able to get a sense of how it must have been.
We accept a lift back to Pam’s and in the car we are asked if like Abba by our enchanting young companion and I tell the tale of one of my favourite childhood holiday occupations perched on the back of the settee singing Abba songs to my relatives. Carol tops it with her tale of singing Elvis Presley songs with a chair as partner, and Pam tells of dressing up and dancing to tunes from the old gramophone. It seems in almost every place I visit we remember things that are no more yet they are part of our living memories.
Back home Pam plays me the Stourbridge Transition Rap, which you can enjoy here;
and tells me about a local shop project that Transition Stourbridge are promoting; the closed door welcome- encouraging shops to keep their shop doors closed even when open , in the wintertime, to conserve heating.
I hear from Silvia in Shrewsbury and am delighted to be able to add links to a few of the Shropshire transition initiatives I unhappily didn’t know about in time to visit:
Lots going on in Shropshire too!